Dilemmas: I want a surprise Christmas present from my husband. Is that unreasonable?

Fiona's husband has always given her sensible Christmas presents in the past, from a DIY manual to a `new kitchen' to which they had both contributed. He now says they're too old for presents. But she wants just a little something, preferably smelly, glittery or silly. How can she change his mind?

The wail, "I just want something to open!" is one that can often be read in the bubbles above adults' heads as they watch their children open present after present.

I'm not a great believer in the "inner child", because generally most adults behave irrationally and emotionally enough for one to wish that their inner children were indeed "inner", and not so publicly exposed to the outside world. But when it comes to Christmas, and in the presence of children, most adults do try to keep their childish thoughts unexpressed - although it doesn't stop them thinking them. OK, the eldest child did say he'd make something for you when he got back to school; your husband has already given you the book you wanted from Waterstones several days ago; and the second-eldest has promised she'll buy you something with her Christmas money - but often there's often a dearth of actual presents on the day.

If Fiona puts her foot down, she'll probably be faced with the unsympathetic "But what do you want?" and the production of a couple of fivers with the instructions: "Go and buy it for yourself." Then she may, like a friend of mine, have to suffer the humiliation of wrapping it up in the Christmas paper she bought, and getting him to sign the label before sticking it on for herself.

Having spent many Christmases getting presents such as The Oxford Book of English History from my then husband, I instructed him to get me a surprise. "I want a very silly surprise, as well," I ordered.

Come Christmas Day he was extremely apologetic. He said he'd got me a present but it wasn't at all silly, because he just couldn't think of anything silly. He said it was rather small and grey and he was sure I wouldn't like it. What could it be? A pocket calculator? A pipe-wrench? A pair of socks? He went to the flat next door to fetch it - and it turned out to be a giant, bright green, stuffed hippopotamus. Now that was what I call a silly present. I loved it.

But if Fiona's husband is not as bright as mine was, what is she to do? I think she has to enlist the help of a third party. This third party must say to the husband: "I hear Fiona's deeply upset that you say you're not going to give her a present this year. I suggest you give her a surprise." Then she must produce a list of things Fiona would like, as well as a few suggestions of her own - after all, Fiona does want a surprise. It could be a couple of theatre tickets, scent, a ring (which she must help him choose), a trip to Paris in the New Year, or a teddy bear. For what Fiona's husband lacks, I'm sure, is not the willingness to give a present, but the imagination to know what on earth to give her. Everyone loves to give successful presents, and when Fiona opens it she must go overboard with excitement and gratitude. She, in her turn, must respond in kind with a surprise present of her own. Cuff-links instead of a ring? A T- shirt with the words "This T-shirt is worn by the man I love" printed on it? A note promising dinner for two at the Connaught?

This way, both she and he will have "something to open." Both their inner children will be satisfied - and their outer ones as well, come to that. And the whole family will, hopefully, have a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

what readers say

If you love him, accept him as he is

I think you need to look at your whole relationship with your husband. Is he miserly about everything else? Is he one of those men who won't buy shampoo because washing-up liquid will do just as well? Or is he loving, caring and communicative? If he's the former, you'll never change him and I wonder why you're married to him anyway. My husband doesn't give me gifts but he's definitely in the latter category. I have accepted this as enough for me. Last Christmas, however, I spotted something perfect that he really needed, and he was very touched. But he hasn't given me anything. I live in quiet hope, not resentment!

Name withheld

Maybe he has Asperger's syndrome

I recently separated from my husband of 23 years. He never bought me a present I liked, either. Last Christmas he gave me a pair of wellington boots. "That's a funny present," my four-year-old daughter commented. When my children were born I seemed to be the only new mother with no flowers. After reading an article in the Independent on Sunday on 16 March this year, I deduced that he has Asperger's syndrome, a mild form of autism. The diagnosis has been confirmed by his psychiatrist.

There is no cure, though I understand some couples have been helped with counselling. We tried three courses of Relate, but the counsellors did not understand what the problem was.

My husband has other strange traits and rituals which made life as a family very difficult. If Fiona's husband has Asperger's syndrome then there is nothing she can do to change him, and I hope for her sake that he is just rather thoughtless or mean. A network of women who are or have been married to men with Asperger's syndrome is beginning to form; the National Autistic Society may co-ordinate this.

Irene M Stratton, Oxford

Buy your own present

Take on an additional Christmas chore - buy the perfect present for yourself, your husband will be relieved, and you will be guaranteed goodwill and happiness over the festive season.

Esther Oates, Berwick-on-Tweed

Teach your children to be more caring

I, too, have spent many a birthday and Christmas being in turn astonished, angry, and all too often tearful, at the lack of any gift from my husband. Nothing has had any impact, and having received absolutely nothing, not even a card, on my birthday last month, I can confidently anticipate an identical experience this Christmas. I would say this: I have been a lot happier since deciding that I was not going to have these special days ruined.

If you have children, especially boys, continue to make every effort for them and their father and tell them you are hurt when they let you down. Everyone should learn that there is as much responsibility and pleasure in giving as in receiving.

Anne King, Bristol

I am the guilty husband

Help! I am the husband on last week's page, but you've got it wrong. It's not that I do not want to buy her an interesting or exciting present, it is just that I can't.

I am too embarrassed to go alone into a lingerie department; I don't know what size my wife is for clothes; she will never give me the slightest hint of what she really wants. When I did buy jewellery she complained that I bought her an identical piece in 1976. Anyway, we're now too old to worry about these things, aren't we?

Concerned of Caterham

dilemma For 1 january

Until nine months ago my husband and I both smoked. Then I gave up, and like all former smokers, now dislike the smell of smoke - as do our three children. With winter upon us and everyone spending more time indoors, I have now asked him to try not to smoke in the house. We have no balconies or garden. Since I asked him he's cut down to fewer than five cigarettes a day, but I would really prefer that he didn't smoke in the house at all. He points out that I was a smoker till recently, and was a smoker when we met. My reply is that people change, and so do situations. It's a health problem and a human one, and I wonder whether other readers have had the same problem. What should I do?

Penny.

`Dilemmas' returns on 1 January. Letters are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a bouquet from Interflora. Send comments to me at the Features Department, `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL (fax: 0171-293 2182), by Tuesday morning, 30 December.

And if you have a dilemma of your own that you would like to share, please let me know.

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